December 15, 2019

“A People Prepared for the Lord”

Luke 1:5-17

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC  by Janice Ogoshi

December 15, 2019 (Advent 3)


The gospel of Luke was written as a report about the life of Jesus.  There were other accounts of what people saw and experienced with him.  The author of this gospel tells his audience what sets his account apart from the others. He states that he has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning…” (Luke 1:3).


This careful investigation of the life of Jesus begins with the story of the birth of John the Baptizer.  We rarely read this story at the beginning of the gospel of Luke.  It’s not in the Revised Common Lectionary, the set of readings that many churches follow.  We usually skip over this story and start reading Luke from chapter 2.  We want to read the good stuff, we want to get right to the Christmas story, but Luke wants us to know about John first.  It’s interesting that out of the 80 verses in chapter one, over half of them are given to the story of John’s birth.  For this careful gospel writer, John’s birth is important to setting the context for the story of Jesus.  


The gospel of Luke begins with the story of two older people, Elizabeth and Zechariah.  They both come from priestly families, which means their ancestors, stretching back to the time of Moses, served as worship leaders for the people of Israel.  They were “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (v. 6).  A more faithful, couple that was loyal to the Lord couldn’t be found.  Today we might call them pillars of the church.  But they were childless, and they were very old.


Does this story sound familiar?  It should, because this was Abraham and Sarah’s story.  We read the story of Isaac’s birth back in September.  This similarity of circumstance should make us sit up and pay attention, for it is a clue that God is on the move, and will be doing something significant through this couple.  This is how God works—in the most impossible circumstances.


Zechariah went to serve his shift at the Temple, and was selected to go into the innermost part to burn incense.  This was an infrequent honor for priests.  I imagine he was fairly nervous, but happy and honored to serve in this way.  While Zechariah was inside offering incense, an angel appeared with the news that his wife Elizabeth would have a son.  This child would be special, and would become a great leader among the Israelites because of the message he would proclaim to the people.  He would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (v. 17).


Our Scripture reading stopped at this point, but the story goes on.  The news was too good to be true, as Elizabeth was way beyond child-bearing age.  So Zechariah asked for confirmation.  It was worse than laughing at the news, which was how Abraham and Sarah reacted to their news.  Because he questioned God, the angel took away Zechariah’s voice.  How’s that for a sign?  The people who were gathered to pray in the court of the Temple began to wonder what was keeping Zechariah.  He took much longer than usual to burn the incense.  When he emerged, he was unable to speak.  


Zechariah went home when his time of service at the Temple was over.  And a little while later, Elizabeth became pregnant.  She was overjoyed.  


Eight days after the baby was born, Elizabeth and Zechariah presented him for circumcision.  At this time they would also name him.  Everyone assumed he would be named after his father, like most baby boys.  They were surprised when Elizabeth said his name would be John.  When Zechariah confirmed the name John, his voice returned.  


We know that this precious, celebrated baby grew up to be John the Baptizer who did indeed prepare the way for Jesus by preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  It wasn’t an easy, feel-good ministry, but as Zechariah was told, John was “great in the sight of God.”  It probably wasn’t the kind of life his parents envisioned when John was born. But he did continue the legacy of faithfulness that they had lived and passed on to him.  We’ll hear more about his ministry when we read through the gospel of Mark beginning in January.


Luke used John’s birth story to set the stage for Jesus.  John’s birth prepared the way for Jesus in three important ways.  


First, the story of John’s birth tied Jesus’ story to God’s work among the people of Israel in the past.  It revealed that Jesus is part of the long relationship God had with the people of Israel.  As I mentioned, the circumstances surrounding John’s birth—elderly parents who had no children—remind us of the story of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac.  God is at work in a similar way with Elizabeth and Zechariah, and their child was destined to be a big player in God’s mission of redemption and salvation.  The God who blessed Sarah and Abraham with Isaac is the same God who blessed Elizabeth and Zechariah with John.


And think about this:  the same God who blessed and called Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and Elizabeth, is the same God who calls each one of us to play our part in God’s story and mission.  It is no mistake that you are here today, that you are part of this church, in this community at this time.  God’s story of redemption and salvation is not just a story for the past, but it is our story today too.  


What kinds of signs are there that God has invited you to be part of God’s mission?  If you look closely at your life, you will see God’s hand that worked to bring you to this point in your relationship with Jesus.  It may not be as dramatic as getting pregnant in old age, but God has drawn you into relationship with God’s self, and has blessed you in ways that empower you to participate in the story of redemption that stretches back to John and Jesus, to Elizabeth and Zechariah, to Abraham and Sarah.  We are all part of this great big story.


Second, the story of John’s birth gets people ready for Jesus.  John’s ministry was about reminding folks that they had not been faithful to the Lord.  They needed to repent and be forgiven.  They needed to be baptized and cleansed to have a new start on their lives.  John’s ministry was kind of like getting your house ready for visitors.


I recently hosted an overnight guest who came from Maui for a meeting at the Conference Office.  Rick cleaned our guest room.  He washed the windows, mopped the floor and took our stuff out of the room so Roxanne wouldn’t have to see or deal with our clutter and dust.  I washed the sheets and made the bed, and put out clean towels for her.  I made sure we had food for dinner and breakfast.  We wanted our home and guest room to be a welcoming place, but it needed some attention and cleaning.  If we want to welcome Jesus into our lives, we need to clean up, get ready.  It’s good to show him that we really do want him to come into our lives.


John’s purpose was to help the people of God prepare for Jesus’ coming by cleaning up their lives.  He pointed out the ways they had wandered away from God.  They needed to recognize how they had rebelled against the Lord, and that they needed to turn around and get back on the path with God.  Then they would realize that they needed Jesus.  They would see their need for God’s redemption and salvation.  


The season of Advent helps us realize how much we need Jesus, so that when we celebrate Christmas, we will appreciate Christ’s birth all the more.  If we don’t allow time for reflection and recognize our yearning for God, our need for Jesus, then he is a gift we don’t think we need.  Those kinds of gifts get put in the closet or on the shelf and are not appreciated.  It’s only when we recognize their use and our need that we fully accept and embrace the gift.  An intentional observation of Advent, a time of reflection and repentance helps us fully accept and embrace the gift that Jesus is to us.


Third, the story of John’s birth reminds us of God’s faithfulness to God’s people.  Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel that we have been reading about throughout the fall.  From the time of creation to the call of Abraham and Sarah to be a blessing to all nations, to Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, to the preservation of the throne of David in spite of the long line of rebellious kings, God continued to reach out in love to God’s people.  The angel’s message that John would “bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” was God’s way of continuing to draw people to God’s self.  God had not forgotten them.  John was born to get people ready for the Lord.  God’s faithfulness and steadfast love towards the people of Israel had not stopped, even though it had been years and years since their nation state had been independent, years since they as a nation had been faithful in their worship of God.  People can be unreliable and unfaithful, but God is faithful.


Listen to Zechariah’s song from Luke 1:68-79, the first words he was able to speak after his encounter with the angel. Listen to his deep appreciation for God’s faithfulness:

68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
    and to remember his holy covenant,
73     the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
    and to enable us to serve him without fear
75     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.


This is a song of praise to a God who has been long-suffering, patient, steadfast, persistent and faithful to his children.  God’s mercy and grace would be shown through the child for whom Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for many years.  And this child will take part in God’s faithful ministry:


76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”


Can you hear Zechariah’s deep appreciation for God’s desire to be in relationship with his people?  God has come to his people; God has redeemed them; God has shown mercy; God has remembered his covenant with them; God has rescued; God has forgiven; God has been tender and merciful in relating to his people; God guides them on the path of peace.  Isn’t this the kind of relationship you want with God?  John’s ministry was to prepare people, to get all their hearts ready for this kind of relationship with God.


John’s birth story, life and ministry are important precursors to Jesus’ birth story, life and ministry.  Without John, our need for Jesus would not be as apparent to us.  Without John, the people would not be ready to receive Jesus.


This is why it is important to read Luke 1 before we read Luke 2.  This is why it is important to observe Advent before we celebrate Christmas.  


John’s birth story helps us prepare for Christmas.  It reminds us that God has been at work in the world since the beginning of time, and God continues to reach out to people to invite us into a covenant relationship.  It reminds us that, even though we have fallen away from God, God still wants us to be in relationship with him.  It reminds us that we have some clean-up work to do in order to be ready for Jesus.  Are our lives in order?  Are we prioritizing the things of God’s reign over the reign of our current culture and society?  Are we focused on the new earth that Jesus will bring from heaven when he returns?  Are we loving our neighbors, working for peace and justice in preparation for the coming of God’s reign?  Are we aligning our lives with the kingdom of heaven?


This is not meant to make us feel bad or guilty or bring us down during a joyful time of year.  Instead, this self-evaluation and reflection will help us to appreciate more deeply the gift that Jesus is.  It helps us to more fully embrace God’s grace and mercy.  It prepares us to welcome Jesus when he is born in our hearts.  It will make us a people prepared for the Lord.  Thanks be to God.